Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Joy After Anorexia: The Marie Kondo Method

I came across an old pair of my really skinny jeans during my annual New Year’s closet cleanse, inspired by Marie Kondo’s advice that I only hold on to things that bring me joy.  I fondled my shirts, sweaters, skirts, dresses, and pants and waited for the fuzzy spark.  Brown, wide-legged corduroys circa 2002?  Black dress pants always covered in white fuzz?  Cheap Fair Isle sweater, my labor of love, requiring me to pluck hundreds of pills before wearing it anywhere other than bed?  I dropped them all in the “toss” pile. 

Then I found the jeans, bought in a sleek boutique in Bucharest, Romania in 2008 where my family and I lived for several months.  I didn’t speak Romanian or know my size so the salesclerk riffled through the impeccably folded stacks until she found the right pair, the smallest, most impossible size I’d ever been and only because I was anorexic, running miles and miles every day and measuring out my allowed calories.  But I felt smug, deluded joy holding the jeans at the cash register.  My hands burned with joy.  I no longer worried if clothes were too tight, no longer felt anxiety as I buttoned pants at my concave waist, no longer felt like a lumbering giant as my BMI indicated I could pass for a European runway model.  My body, which always felt unwieldy, was under my control: I was the unenlightened despot demanding to the death.

Recovery from my eating disorder has been long, agonizing, and often shameful.  Five inpatient treatment programs over three years.  While adult women over thirty comprise one-third of all eating disorder treatment admissions, there is still a bias in understanding this illness—it is assumed that it is a “young” woman’s illness, that older woman (i.e., women who no longer shop at Abercrombie) and men don’t equally stand in front of the mirror pinching what is “excess,” don’t equally starve themselves or purge their necessary meals, don’t equally die.
This is not a post about dying, but about joy because when I stood in the closet holding those really skinny jeans, I didn’t feel joy anymore or even longing’s shadow (i.e., please, God, let me wake up and be that weightless again).  Only relief: I could toss them because my joy was no longer about being weak (anorexia is exhausting, devours muscle, shrinks the brain, and damages the heart and all other organs), my joy comes from being strong.  Once upon a time, my daughter used to flinch when I hugged her because my bones hurt, and both of my kids sent drawings to hang on my hospital room walls as reminders to come home, and I was terrified of being bigger in body and heart.

What changed?  I started eating when I was hungry (the stomach churns and growls for a reason) and when I felt like it (yes, I’ll have that piece of chocolate).  I stopped counting calories, clothing sizes, laps, miles, and pounds.  I used to weigh myself ten times a day; now, I don’t own a scale.  I started CrossFit and stopped running to the ruminative mantra, “Less is more, less is more, less is more.”  CrossFit teaches me to love my tired, broken, but capable body, to see myself as a woman getting stronger, to eat more than I thought possible because that fuel allows my body to do what was once impossible.  At the weight that almost killed me, I could barely lift myself out of bed; now, I lift hundreds of pounds each week (though not all in one rep).  Working out with a group and running with friends keeps me honest and visible.  No more solitary Bataan Death Runs.  


If only all of my insecurities and secret moments of self-loathing could be tossed with the same sangfroid with which I finally disposed of the jeans.  But that is not exactly the whole truth.  I’ve been hiding those jeans at the bottom of my bigger-sized stack in the closet out of a dangerous nostalgia.  They were like an old movie reel spinning out a long-ago childhood scene: Look at how cute I was.  Look at how small I was.  Look at how happy I was.  I’ve been holding on to a similar reel: standing in that boutique with jeans that promised joy as long as I stayed at that size forever.  Consigning the jeans to the “toss” pile was a long-needed act of rebellion.  Never again.  Last night, I saw a picture of myself at CrossFit on a friend’s Facebook page: I am mid-deadlift and my growing muscles strain at the weight.  My expression is one of intensity and fear.  Will I die?  Not anymore.  I’m certain that after I set the bar on the ground, as always, my muscles trembled with the righteous fatigue of joy.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

When Dating Feels Like Cheating

I have never dated.  Not an adult man anyway.  High school boys?  We went to the diner, shared French fries with gravy (calories quickly burned in the nervous, metabolic state of awkward teens), and maybe exchanged a quick, tooth-bumping kiss before boarding separate buses home.  That was when we were sober.  Drunk on room temperature Budweiser?  Unsteady sloppy kisses in basement back rooms at keg parties.  This is how I met my high school boyfriends, my college boyfriend, even my husband.  Lust under the influence led to long-term love.  Less talking in the first few heady weeks, and more beer bongs, Jell-O shots, and in graduate school, jugs of cheap wine.  It’s easy to skip ahead to “I love you” after four or five drinks, though harder to backtrack to “But do I like you?”

My husband and I were together for twenty years before we divorced.  In all that time, I rarely fantasized about another man or woman, or man and woman.  Certainly, Colin Firth might have been imaginatively energizing in Pride and Prejudice.  Generally, though, I couldn’t swap my husband’s face with Mr. Darcy’s as easily as I used to exchange the heads of my Barbie and Ken dolls as they rolled around on the Dream House bed.  Additionally, my hockey-playing, Wisconsin-born husband didn’t usually woo me with haughty, aristocratic-speak (nor did he ride into the bedroom on a steed).  The dog, too, followed us onto the bed and invariably jumped off to vomit bottle caps and Legos on the floor.  So I was anchored in the now and the we of my romantic life rather than what else might be possible.

When my husband became “ex,” he told me that he hoped I had moved forward, as he had (though he had lead time on a new girlfriend).  To prove that I had and could (and wasn’t ready to consign myself to yoga pants and Downton Abbey), I accepted a lunch date with absolutely the wrong guy.  He asked, I said yes, flattered because it was the first-time since I was twenty-two that a man other than my husband was interested in me, and not just because I was his wife.  (A panicked “yes,” too, as I’d just plucked my first gray pubic hair.)  What else was I supposed to say?  All those drunk, initial hook-ups were about yes and yes and yes even when a sober no might try to assert itself as I jumped out of the bed and ran to the bathroom to vomit (last call tequila shots). 

The first-in-twenty-years date stealth-kissed me at the end of lunch.  Though I no longer drink and generally now have temperate judgment, instead of dodging the kiss, I moved toward it.  In the waning last years of marriage, my ex and I exchanged friendly-enough pecks but that did not imply the progression of romantic acts.  This kiss, terrible in both chemistry and execution, was no better because my thoughts leaned toward exacting clinical assessment: “First kiss in twenty years from someone other than my ex.  What are my lips supposed to be doing and how do I keep his tongue out?  Doesn’t he have a cold?”  If we were having a moment, it was over.

I’ve been trying on-line dating, mostly under the influence of my ex’s words: forward, forward, forward.  What better way to throw off the past and its mutual, married memories?  On-line dating promises variety and deliberate choice not muddled by late-night booze.  I could choose: taller than me, not a writer, maybe even a Republican (fiscally conservative, socially liberal, though not Tea Party).  I’ve gone on a few dates or “meet-ups,” as the twenty-six year old “match” corrected me, before proposing a night of oral extravagance.  “C’mon,” he said, “how long since you’ve had that?” (He knew exactly how to speak to my graying, newly divorceéd self, but I turned him down.  Closer to my daughter’s age than mine).

The Quiet Man: I leaned so far over our table at Starbuck’s to hear him that my chin skimmed the top of my Venti Latté and I still had to ask him to repeat himself; after thirty minutes, I was exhausted.  Mr. Photoshop: His profile picture was ten years younger and twenty-five pounds lighter.  Even a minor misrepresentation could be trouble.  Was he really a smoker?  Was his wife at the park with the kids?  An Academic and a Gentleman: Our profiles said we were a 96% match.  Witty, intelligent messages back and forth.  A lovely date at a museum where we admired an exhibition of lascivious porcelain.  At the end of our second date, a quick (post-divorce #2) kiss.  Collegial despite the romantic rain. 

My problem is not the men I meet, though living in rural Pennsylvania makes it difficult to meet anyone who doesn’t spend his weekends in camouflage tracking deer.  My problem is that being with someone other than my former husband still feels like cheating.  He kissed me on the altar promising his love, in sickness and health, and his faithfulness, not random lunch man; he stood beside me in the birthing room, holding my hand, as my daughter, and then three years later, my son slid into the world, not Colin Firth; he knew me when I was twenty-two and thirty and forty, knew me well and sick and then better, not OkCupid matches (at least, not yet).  Though we fell out of love, he loved me best for so many years.  But I know some day my kiss will come that will make love possible again.       

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

How To Survive Christmas Without My Kids

The other night, I sat on the floor in front of my Christmas tree, listening to holiday standards, while wrapping presents for my kids, and cried.  Big, splashy tears that streaked my shirt; snot ran over my upper lip.  I won’t be with my kids this Christmas; they’ll be with my ex-husband and the girlfriend, and my now lost family in Wisconsin. 

Year on, year off. It seemed like such a sensible solution when we wrote up the divorce settlement: we each get the kids, every other year, for the holidays.  Easy (or easier) to divide everything up rationally, “equitably,” yours and mine.  Except when you’re holding the (spoiler!) Star Wars Millennium Falcon Lego Set, and Frank Sinatra is crooning, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.  Let your heart be light.  From now on our troubles will be out of sight,” and you realize this totally, amazing, awesome gift for your son might turn out to be THE duplicate gift because someone else already gave it to him on Christmas Day.  This is the paranoia of grief and longing.

But what I’ve learned this year (besides the fact that divorce is painful and lonely, but liberating) is how good I have it when it comes to my friends (include family here).  The night when I was a puddle on the floor, my sister called to tell me that she sent a “Christmas Family Movie Night” gift box: gifts to be opened in conjunction with a movie, at coordinated times.  Twenty-one gifts.  She wanted us to have an early Christmas together before we had to separate.  

My kids, who no longer believe in Santa, are giddy with excitement, and circle the box, feeling the wrapped gifts, trying to guess what each might be. 

“#2, says to put it in the microwave,” Sophia said.  “Popcorn!” 

Alexander shook it.  “Definitely!” 

In the grand scheme of things, Christmas is just another day.  At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself--another day to get through.  But my sister sent a box of joy.

This is how my friends have surprised and sustained me all year.  Not necessarily with actual gifts, though there have been those, too (yoga lessons when I couldn’t afford them, flowers, books), but with their unwavering presence.  By presence, I don’t just mean their bodies on the couch beside mine, though that, too, as a hand, a shoulder, and a hug are pretty good antidotes to the flattening loneliness of the weeks by myself.  By presence, I mean their loving, supportive, patient attention.  Listening to me, walking with me, running with me, feeding me, answering the phone, the texts, the need I have had this year for love, proof of love, after its absence for so long.  Heartbreak is greedy and the broken self clamors for reassurance: who am alone without (his) love?  My friends remind me that I am necessary to them, that I am worth the irritation and frustration and disappointment because most essentially, I am funny and intelligent and compassionate and help complete their world.  My history, to them, is part of what makes me enough.  

“Really, who is going to want to stick around with me after I tell him about [insert here: Bipolar/Anorexia/Alcoholism/Disability]?” I said to my sister one night. 

“Stop it,” she said.  “The right person will come along and none of that will matter because it’s part of you.  He’ll love you for living through it and not giving up.”

My friends often interrupt my doom-laden forecasts with equally absolutist optimism: “Stop it. The universe has a plan for you.  It won’t always be this painful.  It won’t.” 

David Whyte, in his book, Consolations, writes this of friendship:  “In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves, to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.”  

Movie night boxes.  Netflix binges.  Countless cups of tea and seltzer (my friends always ask if I’d rather they not drink around me).  Pasta dinners with my kids.  Vegetarian haute cuisine when I’m alone.  Time, so much of their valuable time (they have families and work, too) given to me.  It is why I will make it through this Christmas.  My brother and sister-in-law bought me a ticket home to New York for the holiday so that I will be with family, instead of waking up in an empty house, with gifts under the tree that won’t be unwrapped for days.  It is why I am blessed instead of merely broken.    

Thursday, December 3, 2015

How To Recover From Infidelity

…And after
the first minute, when I say, Is this about
her, and he says, No, it’s about
you, we do not speak of her.

“Unspeakable,” Sharon Olds

How do you recover from infidelity?  You don’t.  At least, not quickly.  Every day I wrestle (narcissistically) with the questions: “Why wasn’t I enough?” and “How could I not have known for all those years?”  Naively, I trusted my marriage contract, that vow to faithfulness (often dismissed by recent researchers who say that we are hard-wired for infidelity and shouldn't expect more from our genes).  Even when an open marriage was suggested (and I said “no”), I attributed that to mid-life fantasy (rather than an actual woman my husband was furtively seeing).  In the New York Times article, “Great Betrayals,” psychiatrist Anna Fells writes, “Frequently, a year or even less after the discovery of a longstanding lie, the victims are counseled to move on…But it’s not so easy to move on when there’s no solid narrative ground to stand on. Perhaps this is why many patients conclude in their therapy that it’s not the actions or betrayal that they most resent, it’s the lies.”  Lies, yes.  I found out about the affair through a third party who wanted to tell me about my then husband’s extramarital relationship years ago, believed I deserved the truth, but my husband and the other woman convinced him that if he told me, I would kill myself.  Do I need to comment on this self-serving assumption?

For months now, I’ve been mired in grief.  Someone attributed this to my mental illness, rather than, say, to my divorce, not yet a year in fact, or to my discovery that my ex-husband had been having an affair for the last three years of our marriage with a mutual friend.  Easier to point to my Bipolar disorder as the reason for difficult, unshakeable emotion.  That attribution is a reflex, even for me—checking and rechecking in with myself and trusted friends about the legitimacy of what and how much I should feel.  Certainly, before stability, before the balancing effects of Lithium, my moods flipped between free-wheeling suicidal despair, anger, and mania.  In recovery, I ask friends, “Is it okay to still be depressed over the divorce?  Is it okay to be angry that the other woman sits on the sidelines at my kids’ games and eats off the china my grandmother gave us for our wedding?  Is it okay that I’m not okay?”  
It’s easier, more ladylike to write about grief over the end of a twenty-year relationship.  Every day (especially at night), I feel like I’m in a UFC cage with Ronda Rousey, pummeled to the floor until I’m knocked out.  It’s easier to write about the loneliness of being on my own, without a partner, without filial love.  Easier to write about my guilt over my years of illness as the cause of marital collapse.  “I’m sorry,” my then-husband said when we first talked of divorce, “but your illness changed the way I saw you.” 

I wasn’t angry when he said this because I agreed not-loving-me could be the only rational consequence of my illness.  Could I really expect his continued love after he hid knives and medications from me?  After he followed me to the toilet after meals, making sure I didn’t purge?  After he visited me in the psych ward over and over, eventually believing, as most, that recovery was impossible?  Similarly, who would blame his infidelity with a crazy wife like me?

“People said I should leave you,” he said.  Again, I wasn’t angry but grateful since shame annihilates self-worth.  But would this same counsel be offered for an unremitting physical illness—cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s?  Mental disorders are often misrepresented as acts of (ill)will: you can choose to think better, act better, feel better, but you don’t.  
I’ve been afraid to write about anger.  Anger is dangerous and disruptive.  Angry women are seen as irrational bitches (“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”).  Women worth loving keep quiet, ride out the storm, placidly smiling even though the boat is sinking.  But my anger is not about being scorned but about being lied to. 

The last time I was inpatient, over four years ago, I was on the hospital pay phone, listening to my then-husband tell me that this was my last chance to tell the truth to my treatment team, that our marriage depended on it.  Ironically, at the very same time he was demanding my honesty, he was with the other woman who had come on a clandestine visit while I was in the hospital. “You lied first with your drinking and eating disorder,” he said in later explanation.  A screwy logic but one that comes back to the acceptable, mutually agreed upon source: my illness, and thus, also my responsibility.
Most of my anger, though, is about revision.  Though my memory’s hard drive was wiped out by electric shock treatments, a few scenes surface and repeat, ones that I’ve held onto as evidence that married love survived those years of pain: our shared rhythm at the end of the day, managing kids and meals and dogs and cats; lying next to each other on the beach in Greece or Jamaica; sprawling on the couch watching movies, eating pizza, relieved that our life was again reliable.  And of course, I recorded here, on this blog, all his assurances of love and fidelity and our shared future, which in painful retrospect, were lies, as simultaneously, there were secret phone calls, emails, and meetings with her. 

All of these memories are now corrupted.  My version, representing fused, marital time, is in retrospect, false: he was not with me, but already with her, and I just didn’t know it.  No way to trust my narrative because after we watched those movies, said goodnight, (“Love you, Love you”—the short cuts of reassurance and recommitment), and I went upstairs to bed, he called her, and they talked of love and desire and their future together.
Eventually, I’ll move towards forgiveness, but for now I’m trying to banish shame and acknowledge anger.  Living in truth is always the hardest choice.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

After Paris: An Owl, An Offering

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
—Adam Zagajewski
(Translated, from the Polish, by Clare Cavanagh.)


Yesterday, I watched a Great Horned Owl fly from the end of a creance line, her once fractured wing now strong enough to carry her across the soccer field.  A farmer found her over the summer with one end of a string knotted around her wing and the other end around a telephone wire.  Who knew how long she’d been dangling upside down like a broken, abandoned kite? 

Carol, the rehab center’s director, explained that the fracture was likely from the impact or her struggle to get free.  Weeks passed before Carol was certain the owl would survive since birds, like humans, experience shock after trauma (in animals called “capture myopathy”).  However, in birds and other animals (rabbits and deer), this can be fatal, rapidly burning up all available glycogen stores.  These animals can drop dead at the moment of trauma (e.g., trapped in a “humane” cage) or days and weeks later from systemic organ failure.             
This owl survived and was magnificent.  Ombré feathers moved from gray to brown to ruddy red to white, like a desert rock face changing with the light.  Feathered tufts, like flaming antennae, grew from each side of her head.  Her face was a great disc confined between dark parentheses.  And her eyes were big, yellow honey moons.  She swiveled her head, a perfect radar dish, and fixed her gaze on me.  Was she wondering if I was predator or prey?    

At the rehab center, Blake, a volunteer, had strapped jesses around the owl’s legs; the anklettes, more hipster leather bracelets than falconry equipment, were fastened to the one hundred and fifty foot long paracord.  Jess, another volunteer, cradled the owl--a strange, otherworldy infant--while Blake zigzagged the line on the ground to prevent it from spooling out too fast, and to control the owl’s flight speed.  The owl was a little like a ventriloquist’s dummy: body still, head wheeling back and forth, eyes wide open, and beak clacking in warning.  In the sky, two crows circled us, cawing in protest over the owl which they’d immediately spied from their perch in a nearby pine tree.  Great Horns make meals out of crows. “We’ll have to leave if they start divebombing her,” Jess said.         
When the crows finally scattered, Jess launched the owl: one hand on the bird’s back offering a steadying momentum, the other under its taloned feet, thrusting them forward.  The bird beat its broad wings in rapid succession, gaining altitude, and then opened them into a four foot extension.  Each beautiful, tough feather worked with the others, flapping and gliding, flapping and gliding. 

The leading, serrated edge of an owl’s flight feathers, or flutings, muffles the rush of air over the wings, allowing the owl stealth flight.  Birds die from feather trauma: a long, vertical barb runs down the center of a feather, and similar to a straw, sucks blood up to the smaller, horizontal barbs and hooklets; if the feather breaks and the wound doesn’t clot quickly, the bird can bleed out.  “It can take years to rehab a bird with trashed feathers,” Carol said.  Before, beyond a simple understanding of a feather’s general flight purpose, my curiosity had ended in aesthetic admiration of the white and gray seagull feathers I’d twirl between my fingers at the beach, or the shimmering blue jay feathers I’d find in my backyard. 

Beautiful and necessary.  Delicate and tough.        

The owl picked up speed; the line tensed and went taut.  The bird tumbled to the ground, startled out of her intention: clearly the line of maple trees across the field.  The crows swooped in again with their vociferous complaints.  The owl waited, feathers puffed, clacking loudly, necessarily hamstrung by the line.  In a few weeks though, the owl will be released back to home ground in Erie, back to instinct and chance without the safety and constraint of the line or meals of pre-butchered rat dusted in vitamin powder.  Before Blake launched her for a second run, I ruffled my fingers over her head, through the soft, bristle feathers.  The owl stared at me, blink! blink! and then turned away, eyes back on the blue sky.  She didn’t want to know me at all.  A reason for joy.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Divorce: Happy Dis-Anniversary

The other day, I was driving back from Erie with my daughter, Sophia, a forty-five minute ride of monotony; she was lost in the world of Instagram and YouTube, and I wanted to draw her out because she’s thirteen, because she started using mascara and eyeliner over the weekend, because every day I am afraid that I am losing her to her future, separate life, one that is only spuriously connected to me via text or vague, sideways responses when I ask her how she is: fine, okay, good.  So I try to model honest, respectful communication, to avoid bombastic melancholy, but to be truthful about how I feel.  While I used to keep a photo of Wonder Woman over my childhood bed, I am not a Super Mom--no lasso, no gold bracelets, no comic book immortality thanks to Bipolar Disorder, Anorexia, and Alcoholism, and being a member of the species Homo Sapiens.  Lately, though, I’m just sad.

So I turned down the radio (Taylor Swift) and said, “This is a hard weekend for me.”

 She looked up.  “Why?”

“A year ago, this weekend, is when I moved out of your dad’s house.”  (Your dad.  Not dad.  A way to create distance.  Yours.  Not mine, not any longer, anyway.)  “The year has gone by really fast; it still seems surreal.”  The pain of divvying up all of our shared “goods,” down to the photos in the albums, is still on the surface.  The strange, immediate distant hostility—Christopher didn’t want any pictures of my larger family and vice versa.  And he didn’t want the wedding album, didn’t even fight for it, as if eager to erase evidence of any intimate connection.  Granted, if I tried to flip through it now, looking at those younger, buoyant, gussied-up selves, believing in forever, in shared dreams, in innocent domesticity, I would dissolve in hopeless nostalgia.  Like Dr. Who (the kids’ latest obsession), I would long for time travel, to undo all that had gone wrong to ensure aliens didn’t kill us off: anger, betrayal, emotional dissociation. 

Dissociation.  Dis: a Latin prefix meaning “apart,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force.  So not restorative time travel, but a force that reverses love and affection, severs the ties that bind two people together and the marriage vows that enact that promise.  Utterly without association.  Except for our children, who still, of course, long for the circle.  My son, turning ten in a few weeks, said what he wanted most for his birthday was for his family to have dinner together.  And by “family,” he meant Mom + Dad + Sophia + Alexander; and by “family,” he meant the four of us laughing over Five Guys burgers, and leaving in one car; and by “family,” he meant for the four of us to re-associate and repair what has been lost in our year apart.      

Sophia looked back at me in the rearview mirror, her eyes steady (and smudged with brown pencil).  “Are you okay?”

“No,” I said.  “It’s been really hard, especially not being with you all the time.”

“Even though you’re sad, you seem happier,” she said.

“What about you?” I said.  “What has been hard about this year?  What have you learned about yourself?”

She put her hand on the back of my shoulder, in consolation and connection.  “The separation is hard.  Not living together.”

“What have you learned about yourself, though, even in the hardness?”

She was silent, struggling, likely, to name the source of strength that has helped see her through all this.

“You know what I see?” I said.  “I see how resilient you are.  How much compassion you’ve shown to your Dad and me.  A lot of kids would have been thrown by this, would be full of anger.  Which is okay if you are, but I see how steady you’ve been.  Not that you have to be, because wobbling is okay, but you’ve haven’t let our difficulties shake up who you are and know yourself to be.  You’re pretty amazing.”

She smiled, but that was all a sometimes-self-conscious teen could take.  “Can we turn the music back up?” she said.

Equanimity.  That’s what my daughter has shown me this past year.  How to roll with the punches, instead of being flattened by them.  It’s hard to be alone, without an adult who loves me best of all.  Financial insecurity that comes with divorce is terrifying, and keeps me up most nights.  Dating is uncomfortable and still feels like cheating (not to mention the fact that I can’t exactly tell dates that I’m on disability or am Bipolar—definite romantic buzzkill).  On the other hand, my family and friends have astonished me in their generosity and love.  And I haven’t wanted to drink or starve myself over this.  Being numb is no longer an option for me.  While the full weight of grief and anger and happiness and hope can be overwhelming (thank god for the healthy displacement of CrossFit, running, yoga, and Netflix), the ravaging is worth it because I am here to tell my daughter and son that they are holy and astonishing and loved, and born, yes, from love.    



Saturday, October 24, 2015

'Tis the Season(al) Affective Disorder

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

With the kids jingle-belling

And everyone telling, “Be of good cheer!”

In the right (read: black and bleak) frame of mind, this Christmas carol can sound, to someone who is depressed, like the most banal, irritating, foolish advice.  That season again, when I’m wandering, zombie-like, around Big Lots, in search of bags of cheap Halloween candy (no deep pockets, so no Darth Vader or Disney Princess gets a King-sized Hershey from me), 24-packs of toilet paper, and weird boxes of Belarusian cookies.  Jolly holly carols blare from the loudspeakers, all with the underlying message: Try smiling!  Think positive!  It will all work out!  Tell that to the squashed chipmunk I sidestepped on my walk this afternoon through the cemetery, a deliberate destination that helps me remember that at least I’m alive.

Tis’ the season.  Not that season, not yet anyway.  But what has become a seasonal trek in search of a new psychiatrist.  This time, just when I found a doctor with the right combination of bio-psychiatric smarts and therapeutic warmth, he has an “inappropriate” relationship with a patient.  His license was suspended, and I’ve been waiting out the suspension for months, willing to overlook his transgression because he was that good.  This week he closed up shop for good.  Truth be told, I’m not sure I could have seen him again.  Instead of waiting for him to ask, “How are you?,” I would have shouted, “How could you?”  Maybe even shook my fist.  (Mood erratic?  Feeling a little out of control?  No--his transgression just hits too close to home.) 
So yesterday, I saw my primary care physician for medication refills.  I’ve only met him once before and so tried to act brave and nonchalant when he asked questions about my mental health history; I shrugged off my twenty hospitalizations, and told him I was feeling “mostly fine” considering the past year—divorce, betrayal, a-thus-far--futile job search.  Circumstantial rather than biological depression. 

He looked at me carefully, assessing my sarcasm.  “Do you have thoughts about harming yourself or others?” 
I laughed, “Aside from the everyday ones?” 

For a moment, I thought he might press his stethoscope to my temple to listen to the chatter in my brain.  “Really,” I said, “nothing atypical for Bipolar disorder.” 
Later, when I told him about the (literal) pain in my butt from running (piriformis syndrome), he slowly worked his thumbs down my spine.  Ahh, I thought, he is an osteopath.  Maybe he’ll try some sort of adjustment, shifting my spine and brain back into alignment.  And, too, I thought, with some shame, this is the most intimately I’ve been touched in years.  I wanted him to run his thumbs down my shins and up my forearms, to palpate my stomach, thump my back.  Alternately, I thought I could go see a massage therapist—it was clear why some people might pay for sex or professional cuddling.

But the exam ended, my spine, indeed, as straight as ever.  I left with my prescription refills-what are necessary to keep it all in balance, but what cannot cure a broken heart.    


Thursday, October 8, 2015

When Momma Was Mad: Bipolar Awareness Day

Today is Bipolar Awareness Day.  I assume you are the targeted audience and not me, because I am aware of this condition every day.  A “condition” rather than an “illness” because (1) “illness” suggests ongoing dissipation, hollow-eyed, marginal stability; (2) “condition” suggests an achievable management of symptoms; (3) in my mind, anyway, “illness” summons pity and shame, and “condition” more an optimal, practiced functioning—like Crossfit and how it maintains and develops strength and balance.  I’m working on staying upright, not yielding to the dark, annihilating voice that wakes me at four a.m. trying to persuade me that I am empty and done and a failure, and really, truly, Kerry, not interesting to anyone or loved by anyone, okay, your kids maybe but that’s genetically foreordained, and besides, you let them watch a lot of Dr. Who and buy them Burger King chocolate shakes.
But here’s the difference between having a condition and being actively ill.  Five years ago, I would have been drinking or cutting those dark thoughts away, would have been actively planning my exit, would have been unable to slow down for a walk with friends (or speed up, if running all out would help squash the voice), would have been once again locked in the quiet room at the psych hospital.  I was admitted so many times, and for so long, that the staff knew me by name, and always looked at me with tender if trepidacious concern: I was the manic woman who walked thousands of laps around the halls, refused food and conversation, and prayed every night that I wouldn’t wake up because my kids and husband would be better off without a mad, mad momma.

Shame.  The core emotion that ran my life, twisting thoughts and feelings in a Gordian knot.  All the things I was losing because of this illness.  My beloved job that helped me be who I was meant to be, which was helping students find their most authentic and intellectually ambitious selves. My now ex-husband never able to look at me in the same way again (how could he, after seeing me strapped down in the ICU, arms hacked up by the Devil of Depression?)  My children lost trust in me because of my vacillations between silence and rage, and leaving them for one hospital after another.  My friends and family tried to help in so many generous, selfless ways, but I turned my back on them in favor of the illness’s demands: drink, disappear, die.
All that’s almost five years ago.  And thanks (not really) to almost twenty five rounds of ECT treatment, I can’t remember much of it.  My hard drive wiped clean.  Ten years of my recollected past, which creates identity after all, is gone—I have to ask other people about my life, about the places I don’t remember travelling to, the readings I’ve given, books I’ve read, awards received, and most devastating, what my children were like when they were little.  Photos fill in the gaps, but the emotional resonance is often gone.  And writing!  The imagination relies on memory, drawing on existing knowledge and experience to create new ideas, new descriptions, new characters.  I am wed to a thesaurus and a screen that is often blank, throbbing in disappointed frustration. 

Most of what I recollect about my years of active illness is due to this blog’s archive.  I have to reread entries every few months to believe that I was as ill and out of control as people remember.  The only visceral indication I have about those years is a churning pit of dread that I carry with me, a ball python coiled in the gut that bites down when I get complacent.  But now, I rely on my healthier, conditioned voice: Calm down, deep breath, think happy thoughts, and no, this isn’t the time to go off your Lithium.  So much of what has happened this year—divorce, the betrayal, living on my own for the first time and half that time without my kids, a seemingly impossible job search—all of this could have sent me back down the rabbit hole.  Because yes, mental illness was fuzzy and safe, despite the cut-up arms and overdoses and hospitalizations.  Giving in to all the insane impulses meant I didn’t have to try to live anymore, didn’t have to love myself anymore—I could check out of myself.  (It was why I loved the moment when I was going under on Propafol for ECT—a little death each time.)  But in forgetting, I also get to relearn how beautiful my children are, how supportive my friends and family are, how much I am loved, and how loving I am.



Saturday, September 12, 2015

You Will Have a Long, Happy Life...In Bed

It’s been almost eleven months since my separation and divorce, and I’ve maintained an unintentional but instructive celibacy.  No vows, no shaving my head, no mendicancy (though my bank account might suggest that by the end of the month).  Just a stepping back from the entanglement of bodies, needs, and wants.  A tangible way to take my own measure.  Every relationship that I’ve been in since I was fourteen began with boozy (okay, drunk) fumblings that usually went farther than I regretfully wanted the next morning.  My first boyfriend dumped me via a note slipped through the slats in my locker.  He wrote, “You just don’t know how to be a girlfriend.”  What he meant was I didn’t really know how to kiss, didn’t grind my hips against his when we rolled around on the basement floor, didn’t slip my hand into his pants.  A failure to perform. 
That assessment, immature and thoughtless as it was, has dogged me my whole life.  It is my default mode of thinking about my sexual performance—and I say performance, because I might as well be on stage, consumed with self-consciousness, trying to slip into the expected character.  For a while, alcohol helped, allowing me to strut around my college boyfriend’s fraternity house bedroom in one of those porn star, G-string teddies; to kiss back, suck back, fuck back; to forget when I agreed to humiliating acts.  All of it in deference to being desired and holding that desire in place.  Alone with a Rabbit paying attention to what feels good only for me?  To take and take and take and not have to give back the expected, grateful returns?  Unimaginable.  I needed someone else to want me, and only me, and sustaining that required work and effort and blowjobs.

In “The Sex Myth,” reviewed yesterday in the New York Times, journalist Rachel Hills argues that we tie our holistic value to sexual desirability and performance which leaves us writhing in shame and self-loathing.  If we’re not having mind-blowing, sky-diving, perfect 69 sex all the time, and at all spontaneous hours, not just in the 10-11 pm window of perfunctory surrender, then we believe something is wrong with us.  I believed this, was told in several different ways by several different men that I wasn’t good enough.  Timid, lacking in advanced skills, defective libido, and though I know my vagina is perfectly fine, that it was too big to get him off (this before I ever pushed out two babies and could show him how big it could really get.  Eee gads!).  All the worrying and shame over whether I was good enough, desirable enough took its toll.  How could it not?  In bed with my partner, I was unable to concentrate on sensation because I was arranging my body in pleasing, attractive positions: maybe if I keep one leg up it will look skinnier…maybe if I suck in my stomach…maybe if I swallow…maybe if I turn out the lights I will be wanted more.
And then I found anorexia.  At first, a way to move towards perfection—regulation and order could work against the chaotic feelings of a self unable to feel whole and enough.  Follow the rules and you can quiet the unruly bits of your body, can stop worrying about how it looks under lights or another’s gaze because it is only a very few pounds in weight so you must, finally, be thin enough.  (Of course, anorexia’s end point is death—enough will only be when the body ceases to exist).  But anorexia, in a strange way, temporarily solved the problem of being enough—it allowed me to be undesirable.  No breasts, no body to hold onto, all physical intimacy eschewed.  Like alcohol, it numbs sensation and blots out shame, decimating true intimacy in its wake.

And so I wonder, as I feel the stirrings of desire again (not focused, merely the awakening), what it will be like to enter a sexual relationship knowing that I am enough.  It’s what this past year has taught me.  I don’t have to perform and contort myself into acrobatic shapes, nor obsess about my shortfalls in frequency comparisons, nor be the aggressive vamp nor the reticent submissive.  Intuitive intimacy born of integrity.  No vodka shots to help me out.  But as I’ve learned in recovery, no shame to hold me back.  The judges hovering at the mattress sidelines, have been (mostly) banished from the field of play.  Play.  Good enough sex.  The strength of vulnerability instead of the desperation of concealment.  I think I know how to be a girlfriend now.  And, I might add, what kind of boyfriend I need.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Commit Love

The other night, I was over my friends’ house for dinner.  A last minute invite: they had been out to the farm to pick tomatoes, boxes and bags of tomatoes, and needed to eat them, or some, that night.  The farm.  My insides tumbled.  Not their farm (they don’t have one), but the Yoder farm, the Amish family who grows all the vegetables for the CSA started up, in part, by my ex-husband (with my intermittent help).  In married life, I used to drive out to farm with C. and the kids, pick a trunkful of tomatoes, and spend days processing sauce, salsa, and bags of whole peeled Romas.  And chat with David, the farmer, and his wife, and their giggly half-dozen kids.  We even had them over for an Amish-English dinner party in our formal dining room.  One daughter, six or seven at the time, thought it was so fancy because I’d lit candles and put them in gleaming crystal holders shaped like stars.  Wedding gifts.  But in divorce, some friends get divvied up, just like the wedding gifts, which meant for two, go to one or the other.
This is not about the loss of wedding gifts, but the loss of friends.  The real loss.  Last week, one of my friends committed suicide.  Impossible to imagine (and I try not to) because she was always suffused with joy, at least when I saw her.  She owned the yoga studio where I practice.  Her smile was a stabilizing force and she inhabited her body with a grace I can only hope to achieve.  And yet, she is gone now.  A strange, legalistic phrase: “committed suicide.”  One commits crimes or commits to a relationship.  But suicide?  Perhaps initially as a cause of intended action.  But wholeheartedly?  That seems impossible, and I know since I once committed myself to such a course.  But gratefully I woke up in the hospital bed, my life, while not intact, given more time for repair.  Even in the pain and inside the intention and in the bottle of pills I swallowed, even in my irrational thinking, unable to see any other possibility, I don’t think I believed for an instant that I wouldn’t wake up at some point, even if that meant years on out, and see my daughter and son and husband again.  A faulty, fleeting solution to the pain of now, a decision, in its execution, that seemed temporary.  Except so often, it isn’t. 

Sorrow for my friend in her pain and the consequent devastation.  It is not easy to resist shutting down for good.  Sometimes, I wander into thinking that might be the only way—not as often as I used to—but still, what I imagine as a blank, dark quiet can seem preferable over the angry, hopeless noise in my head.  And then, my daughter emails me a sketch of the two of us, disguised as her invented cartoon characters.  The mother has her arm wrapped around the daughter’s shoulders, and they gaze at the other as if besotted. 

Love keeps me here.  Friends, too, and their tomato bounty.  So I commit love, then.  R. sliced up platters of enormous tomatoes marbled through like steak, and decorated them with mozzarella, feta, basil, salt and pepper.  We joked they were as big as the brains of small children or swollen hearts or alcoholic livers.  A way to counter sad mortality.  The three of us sat at the table, spearing tomatoes with our forks, juice and olive oil dripping from our chins.  We mopped up our plates with warm pita, spoke of our friend who was gone, and moved into the restoration and warmth of laughter.  That was our meal: the joy of summer’s bounty and the pain of its end, and friendship that could make a feast from what seemed like so little.        



Thursday, August 6, 2015

Divorce: After Words

This is what happens when you rush through a divorce, when you make agreements that it is for the best (out of kindness to each other); that it can be relatively benign; that yes, it has been over for you, too, for years: months later, what has been moldering in the basement (regret, grief, and the most intense nostalgic longing), drags you down into the dank, dark room. 

The day I moved into my rental house, everything was immediately and helpfully unpacked and arranged in the new space.  Pop-up home!  Even the knickknacks, the few I’d claimed (mermaid bowl, poppy pottery, glazed, clay birds) had found pleasing places.  The speed was a manifestation of my fear of being alone in foreign territory.  No need to live with the actual emptiness if all of my belongings (1/2 of what we’d owned together) were in an aesthetic order around me.  That approach was terrific except when it came to my books (1,000?) and bookcases.  The movers were magicians in folding and tying up my now-enormous-for-one king-sized mattress in order to squeeze it around the sharp-turning staircase.  No idea how they managed the box spring, but I can attest to sleeping on top of both every night, my body, out of twenty years of habit, still on the right side.  No sprawl, no claiming the whole bed for myself, just a polite amount of space, what is minimally necessary.  This, too, a buffer against loneliness.  Or perhaps my growing ability to claim the space I need.

In any case, the twenty-one boxes of books and bookcases were the last things to be moved into the house.  I was exhausted by the loading and unloading, by the fact that my then-husband was assisting (glad for his help, but in retrospect, cruel on the heart), by the fact that it was the end of my paid-for-time with the anonymous and accomplished movers.  When they tried to get the giant IKEA bookcase up the stairs, it wouldn’t fit, not without gouging out a piece of the wall (bad idea for my deposit).  So in haste and desperation, the only place that had room for the bookcases and books was the basement (dry, according to my landlord).  A stupid decision.  Everyone knows there is no such thing as a dry basement in Meadville.  But I was overwhelmed, and sent the bookcases down there along with my lifeblood—books I’d been collecting and reading since high school.

There is nothing, really, in the basement, so I never went.  Not for months and months, except for a brief two minutes at the beginning of the month to dump salt in the water softener.  So when I went down there a few weeks ago in search of a book, after a month of straight rain, I found the outside of all of my books covered in a thin fuzz of green mold.  This is what happens when I neglect what is meaningful, what gives me comfort and hope, what can often speak for my pain.  For hours, the kids and I wiped down every book with disinfectant wipes and carried them in stacks upstairs to the spare room that was once meant to house them.  I managed to save most of them—the bookshelves, mold creeping up the particle board, will have to be tossed.

All of this is to say, after the rush and surface detachment, I am in a delayed period of shock and mourning and longing for my now officially ended marriage.  My children are going to my former in-laws with my ex-husband (I still trip over that compound word, mention “my husband” in conversation, only to have to retract what I’ve said, ashamed that it is taking me so long to give him, us, up) and his girlfriend.  A new-sort-of-family trip.  Agonizing for all the reasons one might expect: someone in “my” place, someone who will sit at the same table where I sat drinking tea with my mother-in-law, someone playing in the pool with my/our kids and saying good night to them.  Though I would like to be ready for a new relationship, if only to cast off the pain of the old, I have to give myself time and space for that lonely emptiness: feeling the depression when it knocks me out, allowing for jealousy and anger rather than believing I am above them, and knowing, too, that though my spine might be covered in the mold of neglect, all is not ruined, love and hope can be salvaged.  

Thursday, July 16, 2015


My Glorious Daughter,

Thirteen.  The general age for pimples and periods, for the tentative stretching for freedom and latitude, for the wild fluctuations of hormones and the raw wounds left by self-doubt and self-critique.  You have become a teenager which means that as I begin to move to the periphery of your life, I will be an obstruction, at times, to what you want, and you might resent the magnetic pull of my love.  For months, I have been walking by your room, watching you curled up like a satisfied cat on the bed, texting and emailing your friends.  What do you chat about in the shorthand?  Do you speak only in irony and whispers?  I try not to ask, to offer to space in which you can begin to understand who you are and how you relate to the world.  But still: I want to know everything about you, you who were born less than six pounds and who immediately latched on to my breast, hungry and content at the same time.  
And you have been largely content.  Easy, unflappable, resilient through my long hospitalizations, through a semester’s move to Romania, through your father’s and my divorce.  That is, until I probe deeper, and you tell me how you hated the kindergarten in Bucharest, how none of the kids would talk to you (English/Romanian divide), how you were so lonely.  Or I remember the drawing you sent to me when I was in the hospital of an enormous winged creature, fierce, with a mouth on fire, and the words, “Momma Come Home!”  Or when you tell me one night, when we are lying on your bed, that you’re used to the back and forth between my house and your father’s, but it makes you tired. 

When I was thirteen, I got drunk for the first time.  A friend and I took swigs from almost every bottle of alcohol in my parent’s liquor stash.  Vodka and Crème de Menth, Scotch and Drambuie.  It was the moment I discovered that alcohol could deliver me, temporarily, from myself.  At thirteen, I was consumed by self-doubt, terrified of not being liked, and always, always found myself lacking in beauty, intelligence, creativity, social swagger.  Alcohol became the way through the maze, and ultimately, led to a devastating dependence.  I told you about this because I want you to know that you have a choice.  Even though adolescence seems largely about reacting to decisions and expectations imposed from the outside, that you can choose to remain your essential self when the struggles of the next few years present themselves.  Chose “yes,” choose “no,” but let your decisions resonate with your best, most joyful, most compassionate self.
What I wish for you is that you stay the way you are.  Not, of course, frozen in time, forever turning thirteen, forever, still, an innocent, but that you are in possession of yourself.  I marvel at your ability to be resilient, to bend and curve around the challenges, whether they are learning a piece of music for your clarinet or teaching yourself how to use a computer animation program.  You worry about schoolwork and grades (I was consumed), but don’t wrap your self-worth up in an A or B.  You do your best but know when to ease off.  You have always followed your passions, are inspired by them, commit to them whether it was making clay dromos, a cross between dragons and unicorns, and selling them to buyers near and far, or deconstructing your stuffed animals, sewing an elephant trunk on a cheetah or a monkey’s tail on a penguin, or devoting yourself to drawing and animation, determined that this will be your path. 

And then there is the way you confide in me, wondering about boys and tampons and intricate maneuverings of adolescent friendships.  When you were born, I made an oath to myself that I would never lie to you.  That you could ask me anything and I would offer the truth.  In hopes that you might respond in kind: turning to me when you were sad or desperate or confused and I would be there, willing to listen.  I hope I have lived up to my promise, that I have helped you understand that you can be authentic, that you are good enough—a bulwark against the pressures of adolescence  and a buttress as you become who you are.  Happy Birthday!